The drama between the Spanish government in Madrid and the pro-independence government in Catalonia, which reached a new stage of tension Friday when the separatist government in Barcelona declared independence, has featured two characters familiar to students of Spanish politics: the martyr and the strongman.
Carles Puigdemont, who was until Friday the Catalan government’s president, has suggestively cast himself in the role of the martyr. In the weeks since the Oct. 1 referendum, in which some 90 percent of voters chose independence, Mr. Puigdemont has portrayed himself as the victim of a villainous Madrid administration. Never mind that the referendum was unconstitutional and that only 41.5 percent of those eligible to vote bothered to do so.
Friday’s declaration of independence followed the same script. Mr. Puigdemont’s decision to allow the Catalan Parliament to declare independence was an act of self-immolation. He knew full well that this declaration would force Madrid to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a provision that allows the central government to take control of an autonomous region.
Following a vote in the Spanish Senate of 214 to 47 to invoke Article 155, Madrid dissolved the Catalan Parliament and took over the everyday functions of the Catalan government, the police, the courts and the public broadcast system. New regional elections have been scheduled for Dec. 21. Mr. Puigdemont could even be charged with rebellion, which could incur a jail sentence of up to 20 years.
That might suit him. Throughout this crisis, Mr. Puigdemont has reveled in the history of political martyrdom of the Catalan nationalist movement. He has especially invoked the memory of Lluís Companys, who declared Catalonia independent in 1934, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Companys was later captured by Nazis, handed over to Gen. Francisco Franco’s regime, and executed. Unsurprisingly, Montjuïc Castle, the military fortress overlooking Barcelona where Franco’s army executed Companys, has become a shrine for Catalan separatists, never more so than over the past month.
For his part, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is acting as the keeper of the rule of law and the protector of the homeland, a role reminiscent of a long line of autocratic figures (the so-called Caudillos) in Spanish history, most notably Franco himself, who ruled with an iron fist from 1939 until his death in 1975.
At the heart of Francoism was the myth of a unified, culturally homogeneous Spain, held together by the glories of Spanish civilization — especially the “discovery” of the New World and the Christianization of the Iberian Peninsula — and a common culture defined by the Spanish language and Roman Catholicism. Mr. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party has its origins in the neo-Francoist Allianza Popular, which was founded by former Franco ministers after the dictator’s death.
Since 2006, when Catalan voters passed the New Statute of Autonomy, a document demanding greater control over their own affairs, Mr. Rajoy has fought the separatists with every political and legal weapon at his disposal — from the Constitutional Tribunal in 2010, which declared void the most important components of the statute, to aggressive riot police on the day of this month’s referendum. (Some 900 people were treated for injuries, according to Catalan health officials.)
In performing to great effect the roles of martyr and strongman, Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Rajoy are trying to score political points even as Spain careens toward political disaster.
Despite the declaration of independence, Catalonia is no freer today that it was before. In fact, in light of Madrid’s invocation of Article 155, it is less free. Moreover, the prospects for independence remain bleak: The project for Catalan independence has gained little traction internationally. Some 1,700 businesses have transferred their headquarters to other parts of Spain. More important, there is no clear majority of Catalans clamoring for independence. Polls consistently show that the region’s voters are split between independence and remaining within Spain.
Mr. Puigdemont’s separatist agenda has been set by the most extremist elements of his governing coalition. In the 2015 regional elections, he was able to form a government only after striking an alliance with the Popular Unity Candidacy, or CUP as it is known by its Catalan acronym, a small, radical and leaderless group. For the CUP, it is independence or nothing. In the days before the declaration, CUP leaders warned that they were “ready to walk” from the coalition if an unambiguous declaration of independence was not forthcoming. Mr. Puigdemont’s declaration of independence has delivered in spades for the CUP.
It seems Mr. Puigdemont would rather be a martyr than a traitor. In any case, in the wake of the invocation of Article 155, martyrdom provides a useful platform for keeping the Catalan separatist movement alive by advancing the dubious narrative of Spain as an oppressor of human rights and political freedoms.
For Mr. Rajoy, who has had its own problems keeping himself in power in Madrid (it took two elections, in 2015 and 2016, for him to retain his premiership), holding the line on Catalan independence plays to the wishes of conservative Spanish voters who form the bulk of his Popular Party’s constituency, and who expect nothing else from him. For the Spanish right, which has only grudgingly come to accept the notion of a multicultural Spain and all that it entails, like autonomy for separatist-minded regions, the idea of a strong leader standing up to regional extremists holds tremendous appeal. Mr. Rajoy also hopes to make the Catalan crisis a teaching moment to other restive regions in Spain, especially the violence-prone Basque Country.
Activating Article 155, something that no other Spanish prime minister has ever done before, takes the game of chicken between Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Rajoy to a new level of political drama, sanctimoniousness and uncertainty.
The big loser is the people of Spain, including the majority of Catalans, who throughout this ordeal have consistently called for the one thing that neither martyrs nor strongmen are particularly good at: dialogue and compromise.
Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and the author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting, among other books.